The greatest stories ever played

Can video games combine strong narratives with actual play? Phil Hartup examines the contenders.

When Spec Ops: The Line appeared to a somewhat muted fanfare it didn’t look like much more than another Call of Duty wannabe in a third person view. At first it all feels like Gears of War reborn in a ruined Dubai, our hero dutifully shooting Islamic insurgents, presumably to stop them constructing some kind of Muslamic Ray Gun, shrugging off multiple gunshot wounds and exchanging cheerful banter with generic macho sidekicks. It is only once you get into the belly of the game that you start to realise that this is no ordinary story of good guys and bad rather that it is a subversive work of art not merely in terms of its content and narrative, but in how that narrative is delivered.

To summarise the plot of Spec Ops: The Line is not easy without spoiling it, and it really should not be spoiled, it should be experienced. Suffice it to say that it turns a run and gun action game into a painful descent into guilt and madness, at the same time examining the very nature of linear gaming. Spec Ops: The Line shatters the gaming trope that if you meekly kill everybody you are told to kill you can make everything right.

But here we come to the problem of Spec Ops: The Line, and it is one shared by almost every other game that has ever attempted to take a mature approach to storytelling: it is a game. When you choose to tell a traditionally structured story through a video game you need to make it, well, gamey. Games need something to do to stop them simply being a movie and this activity tends to be violent, which in turn can undermine the human elements. Max Payne 3 for example could have been a great story but for the body count. Heavy Rain tried to go in a different direction by turning elements of the story that were not violent into gameplay and this largely succeeded, but it hasn’t caught on. Too often a developer will reach for the small army of goons and have you shoot your way through them for no better reason than to delay the ending.

This problem is writ large in Spec Ops: The Line, where the very real emotional and psychological foundations of the tale are played out alongside cartoonish violence. There is a case to be made that Spec Ops: The Line is aware of that dichotomy and is toying with it, a satire of the Call of Duty military war-porn genre. But taking things to that level of analysis does little to mitigate the fact that while you are playing it and shooting your way through an entire US Army battalion, you get bored. You want the gunfire to stop and the story to start again. Challenge becomes chore and from a game design perspective this is a serious problem.

This flaw is inherent to linear gaming narratives. If the story is already set in stone then two symptoms develop in the game, firstly the actual act of playing the game becomes simply filler, busy work, to increase the run time of the game and secondly the story itself has to somehow acknowledge your actions during play in a credible sense. It is this last symptom that so cripples the story of Max Payne 3. Anything the plot has to say feels a bit like a footnote after you’ve cut a swathe through Sao Paulo like Godzilla on roller skates.

Thankfully not all games suffer this flaw. Skyrim benefits from the fact that not only does it have an open world; it also has an open story. There are linear quest chains in the game with pre-planned narratives but the degree of control in how you approach them is so complete that you can choose to not approach them at all. Don’t want to save the world? No biggie. Get married and build a little house in the mountains.

This ability to write your own story has been around almost as long as video games themselves. Elite for instance gave the player a spaceship, a laser, the ability to buy and sell goods and a populated galaxy to fly around in. It is also telling that The Sims has become one of the most popular game series in history by providing what basically amounts to a digital Lego set. Likewise, the phenomenon of Minecraft saw millions of eager gamers eschew a predetermined narrative for the simple joys of digging holes, building houses and getting chased around a procedurally generated world by exploding cacti. Every time you start a new game the story turns out differently.

If there is ever to be a truly great story in a video game perhaps this is where it will be born, in a dynamic sandbox environment, birthed out of the consequences and creativity of player actions rather than on the storyboard of a studio developer.

A screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line. Photograph: ryjek.net

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Want to beat child poverty? End the freeze on working-age benefits

Freezing working-age benefits at a time of rising prices is both economically and morally unsound. 

We serve in politics to change lives. Yet for too long, many people and parts of Britain have felt ignored. Our response to Brexit must respond to their concerns and match their aspirations. By doing so, we can unite the country and build a fairer Britain.

Our future success as a country depends on making the most of all our talents. So we should begin with a simple goal – that child poverty must not be a feature of our country’s future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that relative child poverty will see the biggest increase in a generation in this Parliament. That is why it is so troubling that poverty has almost disappeared from the political agenda under David Cameron, and now Theresa May.

The last Labour Government’s record reminds us what can be achieved. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives. Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures. So we have a duty to this generation to make progress once again.

In my Barnsley constituency, we have led a campaign bringing together Labour party members, community groups, and the local Labour Council to take action. My constituency party recently published its second child poverty report, which included contributions from across our community on addressing this challenge.

Ideas ranged from new requirements on developments for affordable housing, to expanding childcare, and the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. When more than 200 children in my constituency fall behind in language skills before they even start school, that local effort must be supported at the national level.

In order to build a consensus around renewed action, I will be introducing a private member’s bill in Parliament. It will set a new child poverty target, with requirements to regularly measure progress and report against the impact of policy choices.

I hope to work on a cross-party basis to share expertise and build pressure for action. In response, I hope that the Government will make this a priority in order to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a country that works for everyone.

The Autumn Statement in two months’ time is an opportunity to signal a new approach. Planned changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than one pound in every ten pounds from the pockets of the poorest families. That is divisive and short-sighted, particularly with prices at the tills expected to rise.

Therefore the Chancellor should make a clear commitment to those who have been left behind by ending the freeze on working-age benefits. That would not only be morally right, but also sound economics.

It is estimated that one pound in every five pounds of public spending is associated with poverty. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermine the strong economy we need for the future.

Yet the human cost of child poverty is the greatest of all. When a Sure Start children’s centre is lost, it closes a door on opportunity. That is penny wise but pound foolish and it must end now.

The smarter approach is to recognise that a child’s earliest years are critical to their future life chances. The weight of expert opinion in favour of early intervention is overwhelming. So that must be our priority, because it is a smart investment for the future and it will change lives today.

This is the cause of our times. To end child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future. To stand in the way of a Government that seeks to pass by on the other side. Then to be in position to replace the Tories at the next election.

By doing so, we can answer that demand for change from people across our country. And we can provide security, opportunity, and hope to those who need it most.

That is how we can begin to build a fairer Britain.
 
 

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.